When I was a kid, I used to love reading science fiction stories. Reading about a team of explorers travelling the galaxies hundreds of years in the future was exciting. My favorite parts were the cool futuristic machines the characters would use. My favorite was the holodeck. The holodeck was an empty room. You would tell the computer where you wanted to go, and POOF! In an instant you would find yourself in a virtual simulation of that place. If you said, "holodeck, take me to the open air shuk in Jerusalem," the computer would turn that room into a life-like reality of Mahane Yehuda. The people, smells, and noises would be exactly the same if you were actually strolling the narrow paths of the old marketplace.
A friend of mine dreamed up the ultimate holodeck challenge. He called it "Program: Loyalty". It was designed to test the devotion of the men on the spaceship to their mission.
Picture this: you are the crewman on the engineering deck. Out of nowhere, you are called for a special assignment. You're transported to a planet and find yourself at a cocktail party. Immediately the captain comes to greet you.
"Ensign, it's so great you could make it. I have heard wonderful things about you. Regulations state that whenever I am on duty I need to be accompanied by a crewmember. So I choose you to join me at this reception. Your job is to have fun. Just remember that you’re a member of my crew. Make me proud son."
What a bonus! Instead of repairing worn out pieces of the main engine for the next three hours, you get to listen to pleasant music, eat nice food, and talk with some of the most influential members of the top brass. Maybe one of them could help advance your career.
Not a minute passes when you feel a hand clasp your shoulder.
"Is this the hero who stood his post last month while under enemy attack?"
It's the rear admiral. He is the head of the second fleet. How did he know about this? Why is he giving you the credit for this minor task? Everyone knows that the captain saved the crew with some clever thinking. All you did was to follow through on his commands. What do you say?
"Just doing my duty, sir."
That's a safe reply.
"Your duty? Don't be bashful ensign. That's an order." The admiral laughs.
"C'mon, there are some people I want you to meet."
With a simple arm movement you are immediately served a drink. Two waves later, and you are surrounded by senators, generals, and more admirals.
Just as you are garnering the courage to draw a breath of air, they start singing your praises. One senator talks about how you refit the engineering deck to enable the ship to operate twice as fast. Another talks about how you worked 18 hours straight to cover for a sick crewmate. The general comments about how you study for your lieutenants exam in your free time and keep in shape by running the length of the ship once a day.
High on praise, you don't know what to say.
Then the offers start coming.
"Ensign, we have a top level team at headquarters, would you be interested in a promotion? Hard work doesn't seem to be a stranger to you."
The senator chimes in.
"How about being liaison to the government? Why haul engine parts around all day when you can work in a comfy office?"
A third voice comes in, "Do you really want to continue working for the captain? He is well respected, but there are better options for a man of your caliber. Do you really want to be his underling all your life?"
Everybody around this man nods in agreement.
Now it's your turn to speak. You have a split second to make a life's decision. You can nod your head and indicate to these men that you are prepared to look elsewhere, or you can make it clear that you made a commitment to the captain and you are a man of your word. You took an oath of loyalty.
But hey, nobody is looking. These people are far more powerful than the captain. Even if you bend your word, just this once, what harm can come of it? The benefits certainly make it worthwhile, no?
For a moment that feels like a century, your face is that of a man deeply conflicted. Then you make your decision. Right when you are about to announce your verdict, a voice booms in the background:
"End program! End program! Return to holodeck setting one."
Everyone disappears. No cocktail party. No high ranking officers. No senators. It's now just an empty room with you and your captain standing face to face.
"Congratulations Ensign. Or should I say, Lieutenant."
Not able to speak, you look at your boss with shock.
"It's easy to ask you directly if your loyalties are with me, but I had to put you in a situation where you had options – many of which were more appealing. You didn't take any of the offers, and you didn't badmouth my reputation. In short, you stayed steadfastly loyal to this ship. You have passed the test."
He removes the ensigns pin from your uniform and hands you two lieutenant's bars.
"Okay then. Good job – back to work."
If he only knew!
Maybe he did. He must have performed this test a hundred times before. He must have known what was going to happen simply by the conflicted look he saw on his former ensign's face. He knew the loyalty was there, but not as strong as it could be.
His decision to end the program when he did was an act of compassion. He could have just as easily thrown those lieutenant's bars into outer space, but he choose to find the opportunity to have faith. Now is the time to return the favor. When this test happens again – and we know it will many times over – we won't even take a moment to think about anything other than what faith and loyalty really stand for!
Could this program be a template for life? What if Hashem created a world where at every turn there are opportunities to do as we please? All of them are seemingly more attractive than remaining loyal to His mission, and none of the decisions we make have any visible consequences.
What if Hashem is gauging our commitment to our mission: the Torah, and our commitment to His special crew: the Nation of Israel?
What if it's all merely an illusion? One day the simulation will end, the players will disappear, and all that will remain is us and Him?
What if He is looking for every chance to give us a passing grade?
All the more reason to be even more loyal to Him and His world while the program is still running. . .
* * *
Dovber Halevi is the author of the financial book, How to Survive the Coming Decade of Anxiety. He writes for Breslev Israel and The Middle East Magazine. He lives with his wife and two children in Eretz Yisrael.